Sam Eidson has a unique problem. His stage adaptation of Robocop goes up in an hour and he's missing a key ingredient: explosives.
"Crispin Glover won't let us get to our fireworks," he says as he sorts through several boxes of wigs and plastic guns and costumes. The notoriously eccentric Back to the Future actor-turned-director is in town to screen a few of his experimental films and he won't let any non-ticket holder into the theater, even the crew who were allowed to store their equipment there. Still, the show must go on and at least Sam can now tell people about the time Crispin Glover held his fireworks hostage. He grins as he gets into his Clarence Boddiker costume: "I guess we'll just have to rely on our acting."
Sam is the founder and director of Old Murder House Theatre, a comedy troupe that takes blockbuster movies and transforms them into unlikely, delightfully rag-tag stage adaptations. They've come a long way since their first performance, a double feature of Predator and The Lion King on the front porch of their house in Savannah, Georgia (the house's sordid past was the inspiration for the troupe's name). They followed that performance with Independence Day on the loading ramp of an abandoned meat factory. When they moved to Austin, they performed a Christmas double feature of Home Alone and Die Hard in an empty lot next to a 6th street bar. It was this show that got them noticed and picked up by the Highball, the swanky restaurant-karaoke bar-bowling alley next to the famed Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. It was their adaptation of Back to the Future, performed during SXSW no less, that earned them strong reviews from local press and a new level of attention.
All three showings of Robocop Live sold out.
But why Robocop?
"Robocop's iconic. Even if you haven't seen it, you know it," Sam says. "We want to bring back that nostalgia…how you saw it as a kid and were terrified. [Director] Paul Verhoeven will f--k any kid up." He shrugs. "And we just wanted to do something violent after Back to the Future."
The group's passion for the films they adapt is clearly evident. With one huge exception (and we'll get to that soon enough), Robocop Live is startlingly faithful to its source material. This is not a parody of Robocop (although they've injected plenty of humor into the show), but a tribute, a show that could only be made by a group of guys who have watched the original film waaay too many times and haven't memorized the beats of the story and the characters as much as they've absorbed them.
I ask Sam about capturing these tiny moments, bringing up the villainous Clarence Bodikker's classic "Give me my f--king phone call!" as an example of a little moment they nailed. He laughs and tells me about how inside jokes sprung up around the cast and crew over seemingly inconsequential dialogue and moments (the line "I don't like it any more than you do, Reid!" became their catchphrase). "If something was funny, we'd exaggerate it," he says, "but we stay true to the core of the story no matter what." His favorite scene from the film? The one with the toxic waste. You know the one.
It's one thing to do a fantastic Peter Weller impersonation but it's another thing altogether to nail the exact physicality of the Robocop role. The cast isn't just saying the lines: they're recreating the performances, reveling in the small choices the actors made over twenty years ago, little things that only other film nerds will catch. If the packed crowd was any indication, anyone, even those who haven't seen the movie, can enjoy the silliness on display, but the true fans will adore the details.
The show only runs about an hour, but it's tough to point out exactly what scenes were cut. It feels like a complete experience.
Says Sam: "It's like changing the Bible. You don't change the Bible." Propmaster and actor Josh Jones chimes in, explaining "We're just the prophets telling the story of Robocop." He deadpans that they should have stayed closer to Verhoeven's vision of Robocop as an "American Jesus" and "kept the crucifixion scene."
Film fanaticism aside, Robocop Live works brilliantly because it's just plain silly fun. Car chases are recreated by actors lugging around cars made out of cardboard. Bullets bounce off Robocop's armored chest via the power of blasting caps. The film's frequent first person sequences involve one actor holding up an empty frame and others speaking directly to it. The entire cast is played by five guys (including the female roles), all of whom seem to have at least five costume changes. Heck, one scene features two characters having a lengthy conversation but with only one actor on stage.
There's a charming do-it-yourself vibe to the whole show: these are grown men playing kids playing Robocop. It's infectious. Josh tells me that repurposing common household items into props and and costumes is not only fun and cheap, but the audience digs it. "Everyone always goes nuts when they see that Robocop's targeting system is made of green yarn." Despite the homemade aesthetic, there is a ton or work beneath the surface. The massive ED-209 costume had to be reinforced with wood after the cardboard exterior crumpled after three rehearsals.
The highlight of Robocop Live comes around the halfway point. After calling in a few favors, Sam has managed to allocate fireworks, meaning that the epic gas station explosion goes as planned, filling the Highball with smoke and fire. Then the show goes off on a rare tangent from "The Bible": Robocop's journey to his former home and his flashbacks to his family and his murder are recreated as a full blown musical number, with lyrics set to the iconic Robocop theme.
As Robocop sings, his family over one shoulder and the men who killed him over the other, a spotlight finds him through the smoke. It's an image that would be hilarious if it wasn't so stunning. It would be easy to make Robocop sing if you were simply making fun of Robocop, but not here. Robocop is singing because everyone in the cast and crew agreed that Robocop singing would be absolutely friggin' awesome. And it is.
With another successful show under their belt, what is Old Murder House cooking up next? Sam played coy, but offered me this tidbit: "Right now, Josh is building Private Vasquez's gun." If you're worth your salt as a film geek, you know what that means.